For some of us, public speaking is to be avoided, not volunteered for. So when it came to the Howl, a poetry open mic night at Mozarts, Natalie had her doubts. Read on to find out how she got up the nerve to read some of her work in front of a live audience.
On Thursday 11th October, to put it crudely, I popped a poetic cherry.
Usually being the sort of person who has to crush Prozac into my tea just to ring for a taxi (phones make me nervous- someone is listening, someone is speaking but they have no face – they could be anyone. Anywhere) and far too scared to raise a point in class (my raised opinion may raise someone’s opposing fist), I managed to stand in front of an audience and read out my work in an actual social setting. With actual listening people. I stood and exposed the work I have until now been posting online behind the voiceless shield of security that is my Dell laptop screen.
I knew it was going to have to happen one day. I have watched in awe as poets at book launches stand up, fuelled only by a glass of water, and deliver their words to an intently listening audience. And as much as I wish that one day I can be good at what I enjoy and one day write enough poems that are good enough for someone to even consider that they may be worth publishing, I know that success in competitions and writing must be accompanied by what we shy people quake at the very mention of: public speaking.
At the Hippocrates’ Prizegiving last May, as a commended poet I remember breathing a sigh of utmost relief when I found out only the top three winners had to read their work. Great, I thought. It meant I could shy away and help myself to free wine and still have my name in print in the anthology. My words would still reach people without me having to even open my mouth (except to glug the cava).
But the problem is that this shying away will inevitably one day stop me from getting any further. You probably remember in school during one English lesson (if you weren’t making your own poetry with Lambert and Butler behind the shed) that poetry was originally intended to be recited and shared through word of mouth. Those of you who studied Classics- remember Homer’s epic The Iliad? Big Greek masterpiece full of angry men and ships and intolerant gods? That was intended for recital. Jumping further forward into relatively modern history, take for example the African-American civil rights movement where spoken poetry was moved back under the glare of the spotlight. With the blues dominating the music scene, Harlem was an explosion of culture. Art, music and poetry were alive with fresh talent and new perspectives. Countless new and exciting poets took up their pens and opened their mouths to voice an incredible torrent of passionate words. Just listen to the phenomenal poet Amiri Baracka and his political poetic roar during the Black Arts movement of the 1960’s. Have you ever read Paul Laurence Dunbar’s When Malindy Sings?
“She jes’ spreads huh mouf and hollahs,
“Come to Jesus,” twell you hyeah
Sinnahs’ tremblin’ steps and voices,
Timid-lak a-drawin’ neah;
Den she tu’ns to “Rock of Ages,”
Simply to de cross she clings,
An’ you fin’ yo’ teahs a-drappin’
When Malindy sings.”
Read it out aloud, just as you see it. Suddenly the poem has a force it just can’t have whilst lying there in flat lines on the page. Notice the beat and the rhythm? The accent? Voice adds power to a poem. That rhythm draws attention to it. Have a look at some of the professionals on Youtube – if your accent is crap and you’re embarrassed by the fact you sound like you’re choking on a sponge.
And there’s no denying that as a child, as far as literature was concerned, Dr Seuss’s The Cat in the Hat was always ten times funnier when read out by your exasperated mother, clutching her head at 9pm and wishing you’d “go the fuck to sleep” so she could pour herself a Chardonnay and weep over the Crayola you swirled around the wallpaper. From a young age, we understand that poetry has a sound to it. It’s intended to be heard.
So what is it like to hear poetry read out aloud in a warm bar where the lights are low, the audience are all ears and the beer is flowing? When I joined the Dead Poets Society this year (along with various other societies I will never attend because I will not be a sodding Hufflepuff and I can’t speak a word of German) I remember being excited about the socials for this one in particular. Social events based on my passion for poetry? Fantastic. Wine and poetry are a beautiful coupling. The first social was to be at Mozart’s for The Howl, an open mic where anyone is encouraged to come and share their work. And from the Facebook group posts, the Dead Poets seemed Dead Nice.
I know, I thought, I’m painfully shy so naturally I must tell everyone I’m going to read my work, feel too guilty to back out of it and then proceed to scare the shit out of myself and commit an act of social suicide.
When Thursday came I squirmed. I decided I would do it. I decided I wouldn’t do it. I decided I’d do it again. I decided I’d do it if there was a lot of wine involved (unfortunately, this is very much a “fresher” mentality, only for them the “it” of this sentence is usually replaced by an act far more scandalous). By the afternoon, I hadn’t even picked my poems. I then realised that an awful lot of my poems are about mad people or people who really want sex and so I did what most people do when they feel nervous and I went for a cup of tea with Nan. Nan always has good life advice.
“Just don’t do what I did when I had to recite a poem once in school,” she told me, in her wise-owl way. “I had to read this poem out once. The Old Horse Dobbin. I was so nervous that I kept pulling my dress up in my hands slowly. By the end I was flashing my knickers to the whole class and wanted to cry.”
Thank you, Nan. I went away brimming with confidence.
But when the night came, I did not have a Dobbin-inspired crisis. Nobody saw my underwear. I didn’t even shake like I usually do when I have to read a poem in Creative Writing class (yeah, that ‘useless’ joint degree. Shut up). I eventually decided to read my poem Penelope which was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize; which may possibly mean that maybe somebody, somewhere, doesn’t think it is crap. I also brought with me my poem Sylvia, a tribute to Plath,as it is she who continues to inspire me and reminds me why I ever decided to start writing poetry. My well-thumbed, coffee-stained copy of The Colossus has been there for me through many a tough time. (Also, it’s worth checking out the recordings of Plath reading her famous poem Daddy. Her force when reading is incredible).
After a cava or two in the shower (it’s not trampy if it’s got bubbles in it), and a few glasses in Mozart’s, things turned deliciously hazy. God, I even felt relaxed. Meeting everyone in the society and feeling so full of Dutch courage, it was by this point that I probably could have gone up and read in my underwear regardless of whether or not my Nan’s performance was to repeat itself. And as time went on, seeing everyone else do such a fantastic job with their work made me want to be a part of the buzz. As usually happens after more than three units, Shy Natalie rolled over and died somewhere under my chair and Louder Natalie kicked her in the ribs.
So when my name was called I got up, somehow managed to see the words, took a deep breath and read aloud. Before, I’d pictured a torrent of plum tomatoes. A resounding hiss winding about the room like a poetry-slating anaconda. A bottle to the head. And what did I get? A supportive round of applause. A sigh of relief.
Public speaking? That wasn’t so bad. And I can honestly say I can’t wait to go and read again. If I was a spoken poetry virgin before, then I’m quite happy to become a shameless poetic slut.
And Nan, thanks for the advice.
By Natalie Holborow